- The Washington Times - Monday, August 11, 2008

KUQA, China (AP) | Soldiers with machine guns guarded the sidewalks and police yelled at residents who tried to leave their homes Sunday, hours after officers battled bomb-tossing assailants in the second daring attack in a week in China’s restive Muslim territory.

The attackers were able to launch a series of pre-dawn bombings in the rugged Xinjiang region, far from the Beijing Olympics, despite tightened security for the games.

The violence, which police say killed 10 assailants and one security guard, also came just days after a militant Islamic group linked to al Qaeda issued a new warning it would strike during the Olympics.

No group has claimed responsibility for Sunday’s attack in Kuqa County, and police have not released any evidence that a terrorist organization was involved. But tensions in Xinjiang have been simmering for decades between the Muslim minority Uighur people and the Han Chinese who are about 90 percent of the nation’s population.

Many Uighurs yearn for independence for Xinjiang, a sprawling region rich in minerals and oil. Critics say the millions of Han Chinese who have settled here in recent years are gradually squeezing the Turkic people out of their homeland.

But many Chinese think the Uighurs (pronounced WEE-gers) are backward and ungrateful for the economic development the Chinese have brought to the poor region, which borders eight Central Asian nations.

Sunday’s series of bombings apparently targeted places dominated by Chinese, including a police station, government buildings, a bank and a shopping center in Kuqa - a base for oil and natural gas projects in the surrounding desert and mountains.

One blast blew the metal security door off the Three Eagle Shoe City. Several display cases were pushed over, and the floor was littered with bits of glass, light bulbs and shoes.

“I have no idea what their motive was,” said the store’s owner.

“I opened this store about a year ago. Business has been OK. Now I don’t know how I’m going to afford to fix it up,” said the man, who declined to give his name because of the sensitivity of the attack.

In a brief statement, police said officers killed eight of the attackers and two others blew themselves up. Two were arrested and three were at large, said the police, who declined to offer more information.

A more detailed and dramatic account was provided by the state-run Xinhua News Agency, which said there were 12 bombings. The attackers used bent pipes, gas canisters and liquid gas tanks to make their explosive devices, Xinhua said.

In one of the most brazen attacks, the assailants drove a three-wheeled vehicle with explosives into the compound of the public security bureau at about 2:30 a.m., Xinhua reported. A blast followed, killing a security guard and injuring two police and two civilians, it said.

Six hours later, police hunted down five attackers who were hiding under a counter in a nearby market, Xinhua said. The men hurled bombs at the police, who fatally shot two of them, while the remaining three killed themselves with their own bombs, the news agency said.

Police declined to confirm the Xinhua account or comment on the discrepancies between it and the police statement.

One group that might be behind the attacks was the Turkestan Islamic Party, which issued the recent Olympics threat. The organization, which analysts believe is based in neighboring Pakistan, is fighting for Xinjiang independence.

Li Wei, a counterterrorism expert at a think tank with ties to the Chinese government, said the group’s support has declined sharply in the past few years. It may be trying to boost its profile and influence by launching attacks during the games, said Li, of the China Institute for Contemporary International Relations.

Last Monday, two attackers killed 16 border police in the Xinjiang city of Kashgar, near the Pakistan-Afghanistan border. No one claim responsibility.

After Sunday’s bombings, the authorities declared virtual martial law in Kuqa, about 1,740 miles west of Beijing with a population of 400,000. Outside the Kuqa Hotel, about five soldiers were on their stomachs in sniper positions, aiming Kalashnikov assault rifles toward the road.

Three European tourists who came to Kuqa to see one of its famous sites - rock-cut Buddhist caves and wall paintings - canceled their plans and made arrangements to leave on the next train.

“I heard some bombs and then I heard some machine guns,” said one of the tourists, who did not want his name or nationality mentioned for fear of the response from Chinese authorities. “The bombs sounded like thunder far away.”

cAssociated Press writer Gillian Wong in Beijing contributed to this report.

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